Published December 10, 2011
ATHENS, Texas – A national atheist foundation plans to seek permission to hoist its own banner to join secular and religious Christmas displays on an East Texas courthouse square.
The display surrounding the Henderson County Courthouse in Athens includes a traditional Nativity scene, as well as multiple Santa Clauses, elves, wreathes, garland, trumpeters, dwarfs, snowmen, reindeer and Christmas trees, the Athens Daily Review reported.
"We've got an array of decorations and feel that we are in compliance with federal law," County Judge Richard Sanders told the newspaper. "We're not pushing any religious down anybody's throat. These are holiday decorations we enjoy."
However, county officials received a letter Monday from the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which argued the seasonal display on courthouse grounds amounts to an unconstitutional endorsement of the Christian faith.
Foundation attorney Stephanie Schmitt says that since the county allows the nonprofit group Keep Athens Beautiful to erect the displays on the town square, they amount to a "public forum." Schmitt told the newspaper the group would ask to put up its own display.
Schmitt said the foundation had received 20 to 25 complaints this holiday season of religious displays it regards as illegal.
In Elmwood City, Pa., the foundation has proposed hoisting a banner that reads: "At this season of the Winter Solstice, LET REASON PREVAIL. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
Meanwhile, Henderson County Sheriff Ray Nutt said his office received a report Thursday that someone had defaced some of the figures in the display, but the markings were later removed.